CBC journalist and author Mellissa Fung reveals she’s a tough hostage
CBC national reporter Mellissa Fung should be in a joyous mood. Her first book, Under an Afghan Sky: A Memoir of Captivity (HarperCollins Publishers) has rocketed onto bestsellers lists. Her boyfriend, CTV Washington correspondent Paul Workman, is with her on a visit to her hometown of Vancouver. And her beloved Canucks have made the Stanley Cup finals.
But when she arrives at the Georgia Straight building on her book tour, Fung is in a pensive frame of mind. She admits that she’s tired of talking about being held captive for 28 days in Afghanistan in 2008 by a small criminal gang whose members self-identified as Taliban. She’s sick of retelling the tale of being stabbed in the shoulder and hand as she was abducted while reporting a story on a refugee camp near Kabul. She’s not that interested in describing for the umpteenth time what it was like being tossed into a dust-filled hole, where she lived for all but one night of her ordeal, mostly on a diet of cookies and juice. And she most definitely doesn’t want to discuss relieving herself in a bucket in a two-metre-by-one-metre enclosure in the presence of young male guards.
As for the success of her book, Fung confesses: “I’m still not reading any of the reviews of the coverage.”
She didn’t even watch her feature-length interview with CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge, or any other videotaped interviews. “I don’t like seeing myself on TV.”
It’s an astonishing revelation from someone who makes her living as a television reporter and who covered the B.C. legislature. But in Fung’s mind, she’s not the story, and she feels guilty about all the attention being showered on her. “I think it’s wrong that I’m getting all this airtime when we should be in Afghanistan and focusing on the people who really need the airtime,” she insists.
Fung, who was raised in East Vancouver by Hong Kong immigrants, is donating all the royalties from her book to a foundation run by Afghan women. She notes that they’ve already built a school and there are plans to install a computer lab, which will be available to women who want to learn such skills.
“Until you’re in that refugee camp with that open sewer, just teeming with people with nowhere else to go, you don’t actually appreciate how much we have here—and how little they have there,” she says.
Fung has an irrepressibly mischievous side, and she tends to be outspoken. Two-and-a-half years after her kidnapping, she doesn’t hide her desire to do more journalism abroad. However, she notes that with the exception of one trip to India, her employer has kept her working in North America since her release. “The worst part is CBC has really grounded me a bit,” she says with a sigh. “I don’t blame them. It was traumatic for them as well when I was kidnapped, but I really need to get back to doing that kind of reporting.”
Fung’s desire to move forward with her life isn’t unusual, according to Peter Suedfeld, a UBC professor emeritus of psychology. He has devoted his career to examining how human beings cope with stress, danger, challenges, and being thrown into novel situations. This has included studying hundreds of Holocaust survivors, as well as people living in the high Arctic and Antarctic. He says data indicate that people are far more resilient than generally believed.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you realize how strong you really are, which most people are not necessarily aware of,” Suedfeld mentions in a phone interview from his home in Vancouver. “If you’ve never had a serious challenge, you don’t know how you would cope with it. Many people find, sometimes to their surprise, that they can cope quite well.”
At a dinner in Toronto today (June 2), Suedfeld will be given a gold medal by the Canadian Psychological Association for his distinguished contributions to the field. But he has more than a scholarly interest in what’s known as positive psychology. As a Jewish boy in Hungary during the Holocaust, he was hidden in an International Red Cross orphanage with the help of false identity papers. His parents were sent to concentration camps. His mother never returned from Auschwitz.
He says that when he started conducting academic research on Holocaust survivors, the consensus was that they all suffered posttraumatic stress disorder, had concentration problems, and couldn’t have decent family lives because of their inability to express emotions. He adds that they were also labelled as neurotic, depressed, and anhedonic, which means that they were unable to experience any pleasure.
“Guess what we found?” he reveals. “Most of them were quite satisfied with their lives. They had successful careers. The ones who were children when the Holocaust happened ended up with educational levels that were above that of the general population. Very few of them had PTSD.”
Many still showed symptoms of stress. He says the most common was sleep disturbances. “Yes, they had periods of anxiety attacks,” he acknowledges. “They had periods of depression. There were times when they thought about their murdered family members and that sort of thing. But on the whole, they had happy lives.”
Suedfeld says that survivors of traumatic events sometimes get frustrated when they’re treated like psychological cripples afterward. As an example, he cites a former U.S. hostage in the embassy in Tehran, who complained about this in his memoir.
“He readjusted to his life and went back to work,” Suedfeld notes. “People kept treating him with kid gloves. It made him really angry.”
Fung appears to be among those who have readjusted remarkably well following a harrowing ordeal. She says that after being released by her kidnappers in a prisoner swap in November 2008, she saw a therapist who had previously worked with firefighters in New York City. According to Fung, the therapist is “amazed” by how well she’s doing. Fung processed her experiences during her period of captivity by writing letters in a notebook to her boyfriend, sister, and friends. Some of this correspondence appears in Under an Afghan Sky.